By Sheila Madsen, October 2015
[Updated September 2016: This is a bit of a delicate situation. For various reasons The Brenster & Carrum Concert Series will not be happening in the near future. To date, no contracts are signed, but that could change! The essence of the profile is still valid; you’ll read about Brent’s journey to success – where the duo end up performing this year is immaterial. Tuesdays at Diego’s is very much on. Updated January 2016: On January 22, Mazatlan mayor, Carlos Felton González awarded Brent McAthey Mazatlan’s Tourism Ambassador Distinction Award.Bringing The Brenster & Carrum Concert Series to the stage was a much bigger deal that I’d ever imagined. Due to the magnitude, I extracted all the production-related details and combined them in the Labour of Love section below. These facts are an eye opener. You’ll see references to Tayna. That’s Tanya Carrum, Brent’s singing partner. Brenster Productions is often mentioned – that is also explained in the Labour of Love section.]
When Brent was 15 years old he asked his parents, Buzz and Joyce, if he could go to Puerto Vallarta. “Sure, as long as you have the money.” Young Brent did indeed have the money to vacation in PV [with his buddy Troyster and his parents] because he made $2.85 an hour working at McDonalds. “My parents had always taught me the value of hard work and saving. I really felt proud that I could pay my own way to PV.” That’s also where his love affair with Mexico began. Brent remembers, “I just loved the feeling, the people, the body surfing, the temperature, walking on the beach. Returning to Mexico became a priority in my life.”
Joyce claims that Brent was singing before he was talking. At 10 he joined the Calgary Boys Choir; this 40 year-old well-respected institution accepts only the best and the brightest. The choir had a busy travelling schedule throughout North America. If Brent ever had any stage fright or fear of singing in front of thousands of people, those three years in the choir taught him to perform, share and to sing well with others.
Meanwhile, back in his middle-class Calgary home, Brent attended Henry Wise Wood High School. The cool boys aimed to get “stered”. Typical of teenage boys there was no rhyme or reason to getting “stered” – it just meant you were “in”. They would frequently ask each other “who gave you ster status?” Hence, Brenster, Troyster, Robster. At sixteen he was already a multitasker. When Brent wasn’t in class he worked at the Calgary Co-op bagging groceries [$6.00 an hour] and was later promoted to become the first male cashier [$9.00 an hour]. Typical of teenage boys they laughed at him taking a “girl’s job.” Brent flashed his first pay cheque and then they all wanted the girlie job. There were weekends and summers on the McAthey’s property north-west of Calgary, Water Valley. It was here that Brent picked up the guitar and began singing around the campfires. It’s also where he learned to horseback ride, chop wood, and do all those outdoorsy activities that a healthy Western boy does.
There was a limbo period. Brent graduated at 17 and worked full-time for the Calgary Co-op for two years. Joyce and Buzz would have preferred that their son went to university, but Brent had other ideas. He hung out at the Ranchman’s Country Club – meeting bands, singing a few songs, jamming, creating relationships [something he’s always excelled at] and sure enough it paid off.
Full Tilt went full tilt for 18 months on the road, six days a week. Full Tilt consisted of a dynamic keyboard player, Vince Sciveletto, and Brent on the acoustic guitar and vocals; they played the B clubs, it was rough and tough and it involved a lot of driving between Calgary, British Columbia and North West Territories. Time was on his side; Brent was able to compose many songs. [Today, he has written over 400 songs.] He took it to the next level and invested in vinyl – a 45. Some radio stations played it, many didn’t. Taking it even further, he produced Waitin’ for the Sun, music with, gasp, a video. In 2000, he released the first C&W multi-media cd titled Believe in Me. Radio stations and CMT [Country Music Television] were now finally starting to believe in Brent McAthey.
And along comes Dick Damron & The Stoney Creek Band. Brent’s musical inspirations have always been Dick Damron, Kenny Chesney and Jimmy Buffet. So when Brent was asked to occasionally fill-in for Dick, or play alongside him and Joan Kennedy, it was a musical dream come true. The trio clicked and they toured for years together. These friendships and the mutual respect still run deep.
Suddenly, Brent was 38 years-old, he had logged a 20-year career in the music business. He was weary of the music machine, the record companies, and the constant financial investments to take it to the next level. Plus, he longed to spend more time in Mazatlan. Between gigs, Brent had been visiting Mazatlan since 1993 [thank you Dick Damron] and in 2005 he left the Calgary deep freeze for good and arrived with his guitar and a few pesos.
He had no job, no gigs, but he did have a keen sense of business and the smarts to promote himself. Brent sat on the beach and thought about how happy he was to be off the music industry treadmill. He also thought about how every MC, every radio and tv interviewer, just about every single person could not pronounce McAthey. His last name was always mangled. The Brenster from the mid-80s was born again on the beach. He gave himself ster status in Mazatlan. “It was a simple name, it was easy for everyone to pronounce and I wanted a fresh start – but still with some connection to my successful past.”
Melding the past with the present, he slowly built a fan base at The Purple Onion [now called La Catrina] and at Los Zarapes. After three years, he outgrew those stages; he evaluated the music scene and realized that no one was doing an afternoon beach bash. He envisioned an all-you-can-drink format with peanuts; no food, no chef, just willing wait staff. In 2010 he finalized the deal with Diego’s Beach House and started packing them in.
The Brenster likes to remind me: each show is fresh, each show is unique, his staff does the set-up, they meet and greet and do the ushering to the tables, and the tear down. He also likes to remind me that for every show [often 300 people] there’s a trickle down effect to the community – from the food ordered at Diego’s, to the 25 vendors who wait every Tuesday [patiently and never bother the guests] to sell their wares, to the pulmonia drivers – everyone benefits from these bashes.
That’s exactly what caught the eye of Sinaloa Tourism’s [SECTUR] Secretary of Tourism, Dr. Francisco Manuel Córdova Celaya. [For the purposes of this article I will refer to him informally, as Francisco. I don’t think he’ll mind.] Francisco saw the happy hullabaloo at Diego’s and asked, who is this guy who attracts such a crowd? In the spring of 2013 the mountain came to Muhammad. Francisco’s motives were selfish and purely job related. He wanted more, lots more, Canadians and Americans coming to Mazatlan. There were probably a bunch of meetings, but not long after, Francisco appointed The Brenster as Mazatlan’s Official Tourism Ambassador. It’s a fancy title, with few official duties; but the trips to Canada, and the endless promoting that The Brenster does are proving that Francisco was right. Room nights are up, and every year fans and artists bring more people to Mazatlan. It’s bound to be slow drip, but people who have never been to Mazatlan are returning year after year. They are making it a plan to visit Mazatlan.
You’d think flying on the wings of Tourism would make Brenster Productions very profitable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tourism and the Mazatlan Hotel Association pay for a portion of the total budget – and that’s it. The Brenster does not receive a salary nor is he reimbursed for any expenses. The Brenster Production company bankrolls the balance. Yes, artists stay in the hotel, this year it’s El Cid, for free and are fed and watered. The truth is, if The Brenster and Carrum Concert series has a great season there is a tiny profit. The truth is, The Brenster makes the money he needs to live on and invest in Brenster Productions at Diego’s Beach Bash. The truth is, he loves promoting Mazatlan. Who would spend 36 weeks a year working without pay, if this wasn’t a real love affair?
He’s excited about performing in the 900 seat La Pérgola Theater at El Cid. The Brenster’s loyal fans will follow him, but there’s no way he has a following of another 650 people; he’s counting on the all-inclusive guests in various hotels to buy the bulk of the tickets. No wonder he’s currently wound tighter than a guitar string. Our interview time together was intense, and he spewed forth facts faster than a Mount Vesuvius eruption. I could see that Brent McAthey leads with his heart and he’s a control freak – in a good way. Those are the very qualities that Francisco wanted and that’s why he pursued and persuaded The Brenster to join the Tourism’s Western Canada road trips.
During lunch The Brenster fills me in on his agenda for the next six days. I doubt he gets much sleep. No, I know he doesn’t. I’ve received e mails from him at 2 a.m. and then again at 6 a.m. He can see my facial expressions and my are-you-out-of-your-mind look when he talks about his to-do list. The Brenster answers my eye-rolls with “I guess after all of our meetings, you hopefully understand more why I work so hard, and never stop… for so little money to perform and promote the city I love. We are not rich in a monetary way, but my life here makes me feel like the richest guy in the world. I count my blessings every day.”
And that’s the truth.
- Brent has 500 songs he could perform right now and there are more in his repertoire
- He performs 30 shows at The Brenster’s Beach Bash and sings 55 songs – no one show is ever repeated.
- Tanya has 500 songs in her repertoire – a combination of English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian.
- She performs 30 shows at La Catrina and sings 45 songs – no one show is ever repeated.
- For each of the five Brenster and Carrum shows, they perform a combination of 23 solos and several duets. No one show is ever repeated. For each Brenster and Carrum show it takes them 10 hours of rehearsals after they have spent two hours selecting the playlist. Then it takes four more hours to equalize and sync the music tracks. Allow room for glitches, family interruptions and the odd disagreement, you are looking at 20 hours per show– just for the songs.